Negotiations to establish the largest intra-regional free trade agreement in Africa, involving 26 countries, could be about to conclude, GTR has learnt.

In an exclusive interview, Francis Mangeni, director for trade customs and monetary affairs at the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (Comesa), reveals to GTR that progress has been stymied by South Africa because the country is unwilling to fully open its doors to intra-regional free trade.

The third tripartite summit to establish a free trade agreement (FTA) between member countries of three regional groups: Comesa, the Southern African Development Community (Sadc), and the East African Community (EAC), has been postponed while stakeholders wait for South Africa to offer a more favourable commitment.

According to Mangeni, South Africa has so far offered to open up just 60% of its economy during negotiations, protecting sectors it views as key to its domestic economy: agriculture, textiles and electronics.

“We think South Africa could open up to 97% of its economy to this FTA proposal and still protect those areas,” Mangeni tells GTR. “We are hopeful that the country will come around and produce a better offer. It should be able to open up much more without suffering any damage.”

A third round of negotiations between the three organisations will likely be postponed beyond its original date in December this year, but Mangeni is confident that the FTA can be signed regardless of the extent of South Africa’s participation.

“We can go ahead with the FTA without South Africa because our members have agreed to a similar framework to that of the EU, where members that are ready to proceed with negotiations can go ahead and those that aren’t ready can join later,” he says.

Comesa estimates that the FTA will add around US$7.7bn of additional intra-African trade revenue every year, and Mangeni sees the progress of these negotiations as a sign that African countries are keen to develop a continent-wide free trade area in the future.

“This tripartite FTA will have 26 member-countries, making up about half of Africa,” he says. “An FTA covering half the continent is a significant step to creating a continental free trade area. An ambitious prediction is that by 2017, the whole continent will be a free trade area. The tripartite agreement will be the launch pad.”

New provisions in the South African constitution could be a factor in the country’s decision making. “The government is required to consult the private sector, manufacturers and trade unions, before it commits the country to intra-regional or international negotiations,” Mangeni explains. “Trade unions are very influential and the country doesn’t want to commit to anything that may cost jobs, notwithstanding the benefits of free trade to the wider economy.”

Plans to introduce the FTA were first made when the heads of state of the countries that make up Sadc, Comesa and the EAC met at a summit in October 2008. A representative body, the Tripartite Trade Negotiations Forum (TTNF) was set up at a secondary summit in December 2011.